Editor’s note: The following homily was preached by Fr. Stravinskas for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Extraordinary Form), September 9, 2018, at the Church of the Holy Innocents, Manhattan.
I have just returned from a lecture tour in England. A few weeks before my departure, the so-called Grand Jury report from Pennsylvania broke; just before leaving, the McCarrick debacle exploded; while there, the Viganò testimony was released. Will you be surprised when I tell you that I have been inundated with calls, emails and text messages from dozens of bishops, cardinals, media folk and just plain old concerned believers for my “take” on all this? Not a few of you here this morning are in that number. So, here goes.
In today’s extraordinary form of the Mass, we are treated to a passage from St. Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians (3:13-21). I think we can find some divine guidance for navigating the shoals of the current crisis – and please remember that, etymologically, “crisis” – as used by Hippocrates, the father of medicine – means a “turning point in a disease.” In other words, the disease must be acknowledged and, then, depending on the medicine prescribed and taken (or not), health can be restored.
So, first of all, Paul urges his readers – which means us as well – “not to lose heart.”
Secondly, he situates the Christian life within the eternal plan of God the Father and prays that the Father “may grant you to be strengthened with might through his Spirit in the inner man, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have power to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fulness of God.” In other words, our problems are spiritual and therefore call for a spiritual remedy.
He then ends with a dramatic flourish: “Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever. Amen.” Again, notice the stress on the spiritual solution – not political, not sociological, not psychological. God’s grace, not human or ecclesiastical planning or scheming or wishful thinking, is what saves us. And finally, his ultimate desire: “To him [God the Father] be glory in the Church.” In the Church? Really? Yes, indeed. Let the rest of this homily flesh out these three elements.
First off, the Pennsylvania report. It is beyond my ken to understand that, with months of advance notice that the document would appear, how and why the bishops of Pennsylvania did not get out in front of it, not merely to prepare their people (as is their obligation) but also to ensure that the general public knows the unvarnished truth, without the intervention of personal agendas. The Church has nothing to fear from the truth, for her Lord taught us that “the truth will make you free” (Jn 8:32). Lies and half-truths, however, must be exposed, especially when they pertain to the Church because we know that many purveyors of “fake news” regarding the Church do so for one reason and one reason alone: to silence her voice on the hot-button moral issues.
What could or should the Pennsylvania bishops have said in advance? Firstly, that the whole report should not be treated as news but should be run on the History Channel. Why? Because there is nothing new in the report; all that is there has been treated before, especially in 2002. Secondly, over half the priests accused are dead, with one man actually having been born in 1896 and accusations going back seventy years! Thirdly, we are dealing here with “accusations,” not convictions. Were some of the accusations valid? Unfortunately, yes, but many could never be substantiated in a court of law. Do any of you want to live in a country or Church where someone’s mere accusation convicts you? Amazingly, only two of the accusations are even able to be prosecuted! If you want real news, it is that out of over 40,000 priests in this country, last year there were only six allegations (with four of them against the same priest), again, I stress “accusations.” The New York City public school system gets that many accusations against its personnel in a month. If you want to read an independent, non-Church critique of the Pennsylvania report, check out the work of David Pierre at Media Watch.
On the McCarrick front, we are dealing with a very convoluted situation. “Everyone knew” about his strange sleeping arrangements with seminarians. So, why wasn’t something done about it? Years ago, I was questioned about this matter by a cardinal in Rome. I told him exactly what I knew – from some of the very seminarians affected, namely, that the Archbishop had invited them into his bed but – never touched them. The biggest difficulty was that no one was willing to testify against him for a variety of reasons. We shall come back to that issue as we move into the “testimony” of Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò.
As you should know, Archbishop Viganò was the apostolic nuncio to the United States for nearly five years. His has been a multi-faceted ecclesiastical service, first having served in various nunciatures around the world, then actually having oversight for all nunciatures, as well as working in several capacities within the Roman Curia. His reputation is unimpeachable, universally acknowledged as competent, faithful, orthodox and honest. Indeed, he got “exiled” from the Vatican to his American post precisely because he was a “whistle-blower” in regard to financial corruption within the Vatican system. I give all this background on the man because not a few who are unhappy with his document have engaged in character assassination against him, incarnating the ancient principle of killing the bearer of bad news.
The report of Viganò is wide-ranging, spanning eleven pages. Frankly, if I had advised him, I would have counseled him to keep it to a page or two, given the inability of moderns to stay focused for more than a minute or two. That said, it is a devastating critique of corruption at the highest levels of the Church. While he does not shy away from discussing sexual immorality within the ranks of the clergy, I would submit that this is not his primary focus. Rather, he shines a laser on the abuse of power by hierarchs and the “old boy” network of ecclesiastical promotion and cover-up. That’s the real story and ex-Cardinal McCarrick features prominently on those fronts, as well as in regard to his bizarre behavior with seminarians.
According to Viganò, Pope Benedict issued sanctions against McCarrick, sanctions which – for whatever reason – were never publicly revealed and which were roundly ignored by the peripatetic McCarrick. Inexplicably, however, we are told that Pope Francis not only lifted those sanctions but used McCarrick as his personal envoy on many significant missions and gave him an outsized influence on the appointment of not a few American bishops– interestingly, the only bishops who have called into question the Viganò document.
Then we come to the heart of the matter: When a reporter posed a question to Francis on his return flight from Dublin about the Viganò testimony, he didn’t deny its validity; he simply, in great arrogance and foolishness (in my estimation), refused to engage the issue. Instead, he punted and told the media to analyze and evaluate the claims. Well, many of us have done so, and the Pope doesn’t come off very well; even the New York Times has complained of Vatican stone-walling. The Pope’s knowledge of problematic behavior and his maintenance of perpetrators of either sexual or financial corruption are the principal charges. Not to answer is a fatal blow to this already shaky pontificate, where the policy has consistently been to ignore inconvenient challenges; we have only to recall the non-replies to the dubia cardinals and the plea of the Filial Correction. That will not and cannot work in the present instance.
It is important to note that most of the criticism of the Viganò bombshell has consisted of ad hominem attacks. The Archbishop did this because he doesn’t like Francis; because he’s a disgruntled former employee; because he’s bitter that he didn’t become a cardinal. All of these are mere distractions from the weighty accusations. If I witness a murder and contact the police about it, it means nothing for the accused to say, “However, he slapped his wife two weeks ago.” The issue is whether or not the accusation is true – and that demands objective investigation. Dozens of bishops have called for this and the president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, has sounded a clarion call for just such an investigation. Archbishop Bernard Hebda of St. Paul-Minneapolis, both a canon and civil lawyer, put it succinctly: “The events of these past weeks have shown that no one can be above the law, regardless of rank or privilege.”
I would be remiss were I not to stress that when any substantive point of Archbishop Viganò’s testimony has been challenged, he has responded with solid, air-tight refutations.
So, how does this whole mess affect you good people, and what can you do about it? Let me suggest a few practical and attitudinal remedies.
First, in this era of instantaneous communication, it is important to withhold judgment until all the facts are in. A rush to judgment is not only unfair but un-Christian. While accusations should be taken seriously, we must always be mindful of a fundamental principle of law: innocent until proven guilty. Assertions are not proof. It is also interesting to observe that Asia Argento, one of the MeToo movement’s activists, is now herself shown to have sexually abused a teenage boy.
Second, while it is true that many of these disasters can be laid at the door of a very bad form of clericalism, the antidote is not anti-clericalism. That’s what happened in the Protestant Reformation as baby and bath water were thrown out together. A similar hysteria marked the French Revolution: “Off with all their heads” became the battle cry. History has taught us the bad fruit of such approaches. I must say, with no small degree of distress, how disappointed I am in all too many would-be “conservative” or “traditional” Catholics who have exhibited a most unhealthy willingness to believe the worst about their clergy, again, without ensuring a proper discernment of the validity of allegations.
Third, I can declare without fear of contradiction that any and all clerical misbehavior of any kind (financial, sexual or Machiavellian maneuvering) can be laid at the doorstep of a loss of identity, a loss of support, and a loss of faith. Clergy – whether priests, bishops or popes – who engage in the actions highlighted in the Viganò report have forgotten who they are as men who stand in persona Christi; have generally been abandoned by fellow clergy (and laity) who have neglected to challenge their malfeasance; and, have relegated faith to the dustbins of their lives.
Fourth, although clerical failures and sins are reprehensible because they sully the wedding garment of Christ’s Bride, His Church, it is important to point out that the laity likewise contribute to this phenomenon. Any sin sullies one’s baptismal garment. The irony in much of the anti-clerical pushback has been that it often comes from laity who are desirous of either forgiveness or whitewashing of their own sins of abortion, birth control, fornication, adultery and use of pornography. Not infrequently, these people ask how the Church got such dysfunctional shepherds. To which, I reply (to their consternation): “You gave them to us!” This is not intended as a justification for clerical sinfulness; it is merely meant to put things in perspective.
Fifth, it should be regarded as a truism that once doctrine and liturgy are tinkered with, morality is not far behind. This past August marked the fiftieth anniversary of my entrance into the seminary – a mere three weeks after Pope Paul VI’s promulgation of Humanae Vitae. As a seventeen-year-old in 1968, I saw no signs of immoral activity. By 1971, with unrelenting liturgical outrages and blasphemies and constant questioning of defined dogma in the classroom, the immorality followed, quite logically.
Sixth, there is a gross media hypocrisy in its coverage of clerical immorality, and it is this: Given the media’s promotion of homosexuality and its regular applause for every athlete or actor who comes dancing out of the closet, is it not strange that they seem so concerned about clergy involved in same-sex activity? Let me underscore that this is not said to provide cover for such behavior; it is simply to point out the great hypocrisy of the media.
Seventh, speaking of hypocrisy, how else can we react to the determinations by the Attorneys General of New York and New Jersey to conduct their own versions of the Pennsylvania charade? The bishops of New York have rightly said that they have nothing to hide; indeed, as in the Pennsylvania case, everything has been revealed for over a decade now. What is behind this move? Nothing short of pure, unadulterated, good-old-fashioned anti-Catholicism. If the Attorneys General are truly concerned about child welfare, why is their scope limited to the Catholic Church? Why not any and all organizations which have had any involvement with children? Why are the rabbis of Brooklyn’s yeshivas not included? Why not the public school teachers? What about the scouts? Here is something concrete you can do: Write these sanctimonious legal eager beavers an open letter raising the very questions I have identified here. Defending the Church when she is being unfairly attacked should be a work of justice proudly engaged by every loyal son or daughter of the Church.
Last but not least, in my opinion, the first order of business for the next conclave should be the production of a set of checks and balances on the conduct of a future pope. In the Middle Ages, popes were answerable to the cardinals. With the Reformation attack on the very office of the papacy, the shoring up of the Petrine ministry was necessary at the Council of Trent, and equally understandable at Vatican I under siege from the so-called Enlightenment. The propping up of the papacy has come at a very dear price, though, and has led to an unthinking Ultramontanism, whereby supporters of papal policies bring out the papal pom-poms to silence any questions or discussions (Notate bene: I am not talking control about doctrinal matters). The deeply disturbing roller-coaster ride of this pontificate should be adequate evidence for the cardinals to re-assert some of their role as co-governors of the Church.
In 1873, the great, insightful and always-prescient Cardinal Newman preached at the opening of the first seminary in England since the Reformation. His sermon was entitled, “The Coming Age of Infidelity.” By “infidelity,” he meant a lack of belief. He told the seminarians: “. . . when Catholics are a small body in a country, they cannot easily become a mark for their enemies, but our prospect in this time before us is that we shall be so large that our concerns cannot be hid, and at the same time so unprotected that we cannot but suffer. No large body can be free from scandals from the misconduct of its members.”
He went on:
. . . with cheap newspapers day by day conveying the news of every court, great and small to every home or even cottage, it is plain that we are at the mercy of even one unworthy member or false brother. . . . the last few years have shown us what harm can be done us by the mere infirmities, not so much as the sins, of one or two weak minds. There is an immense store of curiosity directed upon us in this country, and in great measure an unkind, a malicious curiosity. If there ever was a time when one priest will be a spectacle to men and angels it is in the age now opening upon us.
More than Newman’s sociological analysis, however, was his theological assessment not only of the present moment facing them but of the time to come. See how much of this rings true today, 145 years after Newman first uttered these words:
And if at all times this simple unity, this perfect understanding of the members with the Head, is necessary for the healthy action of the Church, especially is it necessary in these perilous times. I know that all times are perilous, and that in every time serious and anxious minds, alive to the honour of God and the needs of man, are apt to consider no times so perilous as their own. At all times the enemy of souls assaults with fury the Church which is their true Mother, and at least threatens and frightens when he fails in doing mischief. And all times have their special trials which others have not. And so far I will admit that there were certain specific dangers to Christians at certain other times, which do not exist in this time. Doubtless, but still admitting this, still I think that the trials which lie before us are such as would appal and make dizzy even such courageous hearts as St. Athanasius, St. Gregory I, or St. Gregory VII. And they would confess that dark as the prospect of their own day was to them severally, ours has a darkness different in kind from any that has been before it.
And finally, he sums it all up thus:
The special peril of the time before us is the spread of that plague of infidelity, that the Apostles and our Lord Himself have predicted as the worst calamity of the last times of the Church. And at least a shadow, a typical image of the last times is coming over the world. I do not mean to presume to say that this is the last time, but that it has had the evil prerogative of being like that more terrible season, when it is said that the elect themselves will be in danger of falling away. This applies to all Christians in the world, but it concerns me at this moment, speaking to you, my dear Brethren, who are being educated for our own priesthood, to see how it is likely to be fulfilled in this country.
At the outset of this perhaps overly long homily, I said that St. Paul would guide our reflections. I hope I have been a responsible interpreter of him. Therefore, I would repeat: “Do not lose heart!” The Church has been through far worse before; the only difference is that now you and I are in the mix. Then, claim the grace for yourself to be an agent of faithfulness and pray that the Church’s ministers likewise avail themselves of that grace to repent and reform. And, if they are unresponsive, assert your baptismal right to call them to repentance and reform.
If we all do what we can, according to our particular state in life, we will indeed “give glory to [the Father] in the Church,” which is the Bride Jesus loves and for which He died. The greatest consolation of all is that God is faithful, even when we are not – and it is His Church.